Sunday, September 5, 2010

The "Penn," the "Stylus," and Poe (Part Two)

"As for the mob--let them talk on. I should be grieved if I thought they comprehended me here."
-Edgar Allan Poe, letter to P.P. Cooke, Sept. 21, 1839

If Poe needed a cautionary tale, he did not have to look any farther than James McHenry. McHenry's story provides a chilling parallel to Poe's own career. Like Poe, he was a poet and critic who dared to expose the literary Mafia for what it was. In 1832, he published in the "American Quarterly Review" an article entitled "American Lake Poetry." It noted that American poets were conducting wholesale plagiarism of the British Lake poets, and, instead of being criticized for their thievery, these writers received blind praise from "pretended friends and sciolous editors," and "hireling puffers"--critical prostitutes who wrote laudatory notices of any author willing to pay for the privilege. McHenry named names, attacking such favored members of the New York literati as Nathaniel P. Willis, William Cullen Bryant, and James Gates Percival.

The article roused a fierce counterattack in virtually all the leading US periodicals of the time. At least one New York paper suggested--or, rather, threatened--that the "Quarterly Review" might be forced to shut down as a result of McHenry's expose. No one denied a word McHenry said--they were merely outraged that he had tipped-off the public that they were being manipulated into embracing inferior literature.

McHenry--as in the case of Poe a few years later--became a pariah. As in the case of Poe, he was publicly attacked, not just as an author, but as a man. As in the case of Poe, vicious satires appeared in print caricaturing him and ridiculing his writings. As in the case of Poe, articles appeared about him containing blatant lies. As Sidney P. Moss noted, the McHenry scandal illustrated the literary milieu of the time: "...the violent sectional antagonisms, the personal malice which vitiated impartiality of criticism, the cavalier resort to invective and lies, and the not at all infrequent use of an ostensibly critical article to assault a critic of an opposing camp."

Unlike Poe, however, McHenry was not capable of effective counterattacks. He quickly retired from the field in defeat. Poe was well aware of the history of his predecessor's downfall, and it says everything about Poe's determination and moral courage--this man who is so often depicted as a sniveling weakling--that with McHenry's fearful example before him, he remained resolved to not only follow in his footsteps, but outdo him in exposing the shoddy state of American literature. In the January 1842 "Graham's," Poe described McHenry as "the victim of a most shameful cabal in this country..." When McHenry died in 1845, Poe published a heartfelt eulogy in the "Broadway Journal." He described his fellow critic as a martyr who "fell victim to the arts of a clique which proceeded, in the most systematic manner, to write him down--not scrupling, either, to avow the detestable purpose."

If the "cliques" could do all that to a mere McHenry, what might they unleash upon a Poe?

These "cliques" recognized early on that Poe had the talent, the drive, and the courage to be a terrible opponent to have, should he ever achieve a position of power in the publishing industry. (The vicious hysteria of the attacks on him in the New York press from at least as early as 1836 is instructive.) Naturally, these people--beginning with the likes of Lewis Gaylord Clark and Theodore Fay, and continuing right up to Hiram Fuller, Charles F. Briggs, Thomas Dunn English, Horace Greeley, Rufus W. Griswold, and the Transcendentalists Poe too-effectively mocked--were determined that he would never obtain that power.
Edgar Allan Poe The StylusThere are some hints that his original plans to launch "The Stylus" were somehow sabotaged by his enemies. Shortly after Clarke's sudden and unexplained withdrawal from the project, John Tomlin, a correspondent of Poe's with ties to various Philadelphia literati, wrote him lamenting that "the devilish machinations of a certain clique in Philadelphia had completely baulked your laudable designs..." (It is possible that if these "machinations" existed, Clarke may have responded in some inept or cowardly fashion, explaining the "idiocy" of Clarke's that Poe later described.) Tomlin's quote is curiously similar in tone to a letter Poe himself later wrote to Fitz-Greene Halleck about the "Broadway Journal," where he declared that, "On the part of one or two persons who are much imbittered [sic] against me, there is a deliberate attempt now being made to involve me in ruin, by destroying 'The Broadway Journal'..." For that matter, it may be that George R. Graham--described by Poe as a "very gentlemanly" but "weak" man--reneged on his initial semi-agreement to help Poe not, as Poe suggested, out of professional jealousy, but out of simple fear of allying himself with a man who had so many powerful antagonists.

If Poe ever appeared paranoid, it only proves the old adage that paranoia is merely a state of heightened awareness.

Unfortunately, only one or two of Poe's biographers, most notably Sidney P. Moss and Nigel Barnes (Barnes' "A Dream Within a Dream" has many drawbacks, but he got this much right,) have noted that a good many of Poe's failures and apparent personal flaws were actually the result of this--there is no other way to describe it--organized persecution.

It can never be known how much of this persecution, as opposed to a truly devilish bad luck, was responsible for Poe's failure to obtain the one thing that could have saved his career, and perhaps even his life. Conspirators and general evil-doers are not in the habit of leaving road-maps behind them for the benefit of future historians. But it certainly cannot be ignored as a factor. The last thing his powerful--and numerous--enemies in the "cliques" wanted was for their chief bĂȘte noire to obtain a forum where he could for once express himself fully to a wide audience. It could have very well have been the death knell of their reign of terror over American literature.